by Ryan Leeds
Transport Group (Jack Cummings III, Artistic Director) has nurtured some fine productions that have gone on to commercial success. From Almost, Maine to Lysistrata Jones, they have introduced new works and reinvented “old chestnuts.” The company’s name seems perfectly apropos for their new, fabulously funny production of 1959’s Once upon a Mattress, which opened Sunday evening at the Abrons Art Center.
Composer Mary Rodgers and book writers Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer whisk us to medieval times, where we are introduced to a kingdom in a quandary. Queen Aggravain, played by runway perfect female impersonator, John “Lypsinka” Epperson, has decreed that no one in the land is permitted to marry until her son, Prince Dauntless (Jason SweetTooth Williams), is wed. As they shuffle through 13 princesses, not one is deemed worthy—that is, until Princess Winnifred (Jackie Hoffman) arrives.
Winnifred, or “Fred” as she is known to close friends, claims to be “shy.” Believing that Hoffman is shy is akin to believing in the tooth fairy. Hoffman, whose Broadway credits include Hairspray, The Addams Family, and the recent revival of On the Town, carries so much life and comedic skill it’s a small wonder how one stage can contain her. Hoffman has big shoes to fill, as Carol Burnett originally created the role. She effortlessly succeeds. With impressive vocal and physical gymnastics, Hoffman owns the role. Epperson also shines as the Joan Crawford-esque villainous Queen. Few performers have the ability to draw focus with the slightest raise of a brow, but Epperson is an old-school master who knows how to rule both a kingdom—and a stage.
The show, based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea, has a marvelous ensemble under the direction of Jack Cummings III. A subplot involving Sir Harry (Zak Resnick) and Lady Larken (Jessica Fontana) increase the urgency for Dauntless to take a bride. Larken is pregnant and wishes to tie the knot, lest she flee the kingdom from embarrassment. Resnick and Fontana possess beautiful singing voices, which blend quite nicely in the score’s ballads, including, “In a Little While” and “Yesterday I Loved You.”
With a majority of the players having Broadway credits, the downtown show may well be served in midtown’s Broadway theater district. While there has been no talk of a transfer, let’s hope that producers will find a way to bring this adorable family-friendly show to a larger house. (The last revival was seen in 1996 starring Sarah Jessica Parker).
With Kathryn Roe’s colorful costumes, Sandra Goldmark cartoonish sets, Ken Fallin’s live, projected drawings and this winning ensemble, this newly scrubbed version of Once Upon A Matttress provides the perfect escapist antidote to “transport” us to a magical world of musical theater.
Once Upon a Mattress
Transport Group at Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street, NYC
Through January 3
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.